On September 28th Google launched an update known as the ‘exact match domain update’ or ‘EMD update’. It targeted low quality domains that used keywords in order to rank. However, as this blog post is going to tell you – the definition of ‘low quality’ has so far seemed supsiciously synonymous with the definition of ‘high quality’ – thus the ‘Collateral update’.
Here’s what Matt Cutts had to say shortly before the update hit:
Minor weather report: small upcoming Google algo change will reduce low-quality “exact-match” domains in search results.
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) September 28, 2012
Matt’s Tweet seemed pretty chilled and as a webmaster with a lot of experience with exact match domains, my initial thoughts were “about damn time!”. Exact match domains have always been considered ‘overpowered’, i.e. if you bought buytrainers.co.uk you’ll rank really well for ‘buy trainers’ even if your content and user experience was weak. And this is what I thought Matt was referring to when he mentioned ‘low quality’. It wasn’t until I looked into this update that I found Matt’s ‘minor weather update’ was in fact, a ‘giant shit-storm’.
I’m going to be completely open in this blog post; I’ve had websites of all calibers, niches and domain types – I’ve seen my rankings shuffle around for years; some of these sites I’ve spent little time on quality, while for others, quality has been at the heart.
So let’s see how this update panned out. In this post I’m going to include a site (pregnancy.co.uk) of my colleague James, as what has happened to him is a shining example of how Google got this wrong.
Let’s take a look at these various websites from the viewpoint of a user and Google:
A User’s Perception of…
- planets.org.uk – months of time invested into content with regular news updates and interactive resources.
- pregnancy.co.uk – months of time invested into content with solicited government links.
- inbound.co.uk – a bricks and mortar business with a brand.
- weddingdays.co.uk – a wedding directory with great quality links – no exact match domain here!
- ipadprojetor.org – a few pages big with a bunch of Amazon links.
- americanpokersites.net – a few pages big with a bunch of affiliate links.
- cashforgoldcalculator.org – TWO pages big, with an affiliate link.
- spreadbettingoffers.org.uk – very few pages and a lot of affiliate links
I think the categorisations of the above are fair; those that a user would consider lack quality are sites with few pages, thin content, affiliate links and a poor brand.
So how did Google’s update handle these domains?
Google’s Perception of…
- cashforgoldcalculator.org – that’s right, this trusty 2 page exact match domain held its rank remarkably well.
For me at least, Google’s update has caused collateral damage like no other. But can we expect Google to get it right with every update? The answer obviously – is no. Google has to work towards 100% accuracy but if it can get it right 60% of the time then that’s not necessarily going to stop them. Besides, Google can always roll out new iterations of the same update to tweak things for the better.
For those of you that own a website similar to pregnancy.co.uk or planets.org.uk, your fix for this exact match update is to keep calm and carry on. Google’s algorithm has a long term plan – to rank the best quality websites at the top; and as an SEO, you should also have a long term plan that ties in with this.
For those of you that own a website similar to cashforgoldcalculator.org or ipadprojector.org, your fix is to keep calm but to also give up… immediately. Cashforgoldcalculator.org will be punished one day, and spending time trying to rank this site now will result in a huge cost further down the line.
This update has been huge, it has put the final nail in the coffin for short term gains in Google. And now SEO really is only about long term strategy and development.
What Might Trigger an Exact Match Penalty
- Bricks and mortar businesses with offline brand metrics appear to have been untouched.
- EMD websites with affiliate links for large networks (Amazon) seem to be a strong trigger.
- Content quality does not appear to have had a positive or negative impact.
- Exact match domains with relatively large numbers of exact monthly searches may have been punished the most.
- Quality of links do not seem to have had much of an influence.
- Age has not had an influence.
- Anchor text distribution may play a role – this could tie in with brand metrics.
Of course our data is incredibly limited and we can only go on what we’ve seen first hand – and everything here is just anecdotal correlation. But if you’ve felt the impact of this update differently then we’d love to hear from you in the comments.
A few hours after this post was written, both weddingdays.co.uk and pregnancy.co.uk came back for their ‘exact match’ domain term. However, their long tail traffic remains close to zero. So it appears that Google’s exact match update has (in some cases at least) left the keyword term untouched while wiping the long tail traffic. As I understand it, this is the opposite of what Google was trying to achieve.
Interesting discussion over at Webmaster World where webmasters are claiming that some rankings have recovered. There’s also a report from one user that they spotted pregnancy.co.uk in first position – webmasterworld.com/google/4501349-11-30.htm
Yesterday it was rumoured that a Panda update was rolled out at the same time as the EMD update. And today it has been confirmed – here’s what Matt Cutts said:
So it looks like spotting the difference between EMD, Panda or both is going to be difficult – but if you started losing traffic on the 27th then you can be pretty sure Panda took a hit.
UPDATE: Google EMD Update: 4 Months On
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